Dutch minister advocates 'preventive' policies to address MENA unrest
BEIRUT - While widespread conflicts and the refugee crisis have brought the Middle East’s troubles closer to Europe, the region’s many challenges, such as instability, poverty, economic inequality, population growth, human rights violations or global warming, are becoming big concerns to many European leaders.
Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag has outlined her ministry’s newly framed policy document, “Investing in Global Prospects,” for addressing those “serious challenges.”
“The strategy itself is basically looking at prevention and gender,” Kaag said. “Prevention is about all those steps (taken) before conflict through addressing the root causes and by looking at issues of poverty, inequality, effect of climate change, oppression and violations of human rights.”
“If we address those issues in a systematic way internationally and look at sustainable development as a way of achieving and realising measurable progress, I believe that we can come a long way in achieving prevention,” Kaag told a gathering hosted by the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
International trade and sustainable development cooperation are the key tools that the Netherlands, a robust global economy and a big donor to the UN development system, will be using to achieve its policy goals, which are in tune with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 endorsed by the United Nations, Kaag stressed.
“We have tools, we have companies and we have access to global markets. Most (developing) countries want to evolve and participate. They don’t want to see themselves as only aid recipients. We work with international cooperation and financing to help countries achieve progress towards the SDGs in areas where we see priorities. We want the international system to be effective in that sense,” Kaag said.
The policy stipulates improving the protection and prospects of refugees and displaced people in host countries in the region of origin and preventing irregular migration.
A cross-cutting goal of the policy is to advance gender equality and improve the position of women and girls in fragile regions, said Kaag.
“I believe that shared prosperity is shared security and shared stability. It is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do to invest in opportunities for others and lift up their well-being and create opportunities,” she said.
“The new policy is also intended to be a smart response to populism that says close down, don’t spend outside, and my country and my kind of people first.”
The Netherlands has been a significant supporter of Lebanon, Kaag said. At the Cedres conference, the international meeting in France in April in support of Lebanon's development and reforms, the Netherlands pledged $234 million in grants, unlike other donors who promised soft loans. The grants are partly intended to support vulnerable Lebanese host communities and the needs of the he UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to assist Syrian refugees.
While recognising the “economic cost and socio-economic tensions” caused by the protracted Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, Kaag underlined the Lebanese government’s “responsibility to deliver services in a transparent manner.”
“When you give grants you need to be able to justify and explain. So for us it is areas of fiscal reform, a true agenda to address corruption, political liberty and implementation of anti-corruption programmes that we are looking for,” she said.
“There is a lot of goodwill and Lebanon deserves it but goodwill is something that you need to keep nurturing and retaining and we need to do our best to help Lebanon achieve that. Everybody has a role to play.”
The Dutch minister downplayed expectations of any distinctive EU political role in helping settle the Syrian conflict, reiterating European Union’s “unchanged” position on the need for a political solution and commitment to the Geneva process.
“Until a politically agreed transition is reached, and that includes transitional justice, there will be no reconstruction financing by the EU in Syria,” Kaag said, adding: “We support the team of investigators and those who collect the data that will be used in due course to seek justice for all the victims of all the crimes committed in this conflict. High-end accountability is necessary for any future (in Syria) when the moment comes.”
Kaag reaffirmed EU support to the position of the UNHCR that there should be a “voluntary, safe and dignified” return of Syrian refugees, a controversial issue in Lebanon with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil accusing the UN body of "spreading fear" and hindering the refugees’ return.
For the Netherlands, a collective effort towards “prevention” through the pursuit and implementation of the SDGs and with a “human rights lens” can have the greatest influence and positive change in conflict-prone areas.
“It is about investing in the prevention of future risks and conflicts and dealing with the effect of climate change and the consequences of poverty which induce, among others, irregular migration, people smuggling and trafficking et cetera,” Kaag said.